In the wake of the federal election you may have missed a story about how the Victorian government is planning to change the way that Victorian local councils are elected, something which will be disastrous for local democracy and has come completely out of the blue.
The government’s proposed changes are mostly minor, but the most important will be the imposition of single-member wards for most councils in Victoria, eliminating proportional representation from local elections.
Below the fold I will run through the reasons why this is such a bad idea, but if you want to get straight to the point you should email the state government via email@example.com by 31 July to insist that they protect proportional representation in local elections.
Most Victorian local councils currently use proportional representation, either through multi-member wards or through a council-wide election. Every council in the Melbourne urban area except for the City of Melbourne uses wards, as do many rural councils. The state government is proposing to replace those multi-member wards with smaller single-member wards.
Proportional representation was allowed for local councils by the
Kennett government in 1997 Bracks government in the early 2000s. Ward structures in Victoria are determined through an independent review process, with the Victorian Electoral Commission generally recommending proportional voting systems. Over the last two decades we have seen most local councils move away from single-member wards to more proportional ward structures. Most of that would be undone by the current government’s plan.
There are many reasons why proportional representation is a superior system in general, but there are reasons why single-member wards are particularly bad for small councils.
The state government claims single-member wards will improve local representation, but this is only true in the strict mathematical sense that a councillor will represent a smaller number of voters. Proportional systems ensure a larger proportion of the voter base will be represented by someone they voted for, and provide more diverse representation.
PR systems consistently elect more women and more people from minority groups. Single-member wards is a recipe for councils to be more dominated by the older white men who are overrepresented in any council.
Twitter user Zaccheus crunched the numbers to show that the minority of Victorian wards which are single-member are significantly less likely to elect women.
Additionally, single-member wards were 9 percentage points less likely to elect female councillors than all councils as a whole, and 11 percentage points less likely than councillors elected through PR. The link & data can be found here: https://t.co/vNoCPJPBTr pic.twitter.com/7zUbe3CEud
— zaccheus (@zaccheus_e) July 20, 2019
You’ll sometimes hear objections to proportional representation at a state and federal level because it would increase the size of electorates, but in most Victorian councils the wards are small enough that this is a positive thing. In a council of say 50-100,000 people, a single-member ward would be tiny. It doesn’t represent a community – just a handful of streets inside a larger community.
There’s always a tendency for councillors to be parochial about their ward, but this is much more of a problem if those councillors represent single-member wards. A majority on a council is much more likely to include councillors from all over the area if the wards are multi-member.
Single-member electorates always have the danger of producing lopsided results, where one party wins a massive majority off a small majority of the vote, or even less. This can be less common at a state or federal level where there are strong areas for both major parties, but at a local council level it’s far more common. Look to the old Botany Bay council in Sydney, which had six single-member wards before its abolition. All were won easily by Labor, to the point where competitive elections mostly stopped.
There are also a number of cases where councils which were sacked due to local corruption were restored with a new proportional voting system, including Geelong and Wollongong. I won’t say that councils can’t be dodgy under a proportional voting system, but a diverse and representative local council is a crucial protection against corruption when councils don’t face the same scrutiny as state and federal parliaments.
The main explanation the state government has given for this puzzling reversal of recent practice is that there is an inconsistency in voting systems across Victoria, and that is true. Some councils use single-member wards (although not that many) while others use multi-member wards. Yet this shouldn’t be an excuse to reduce every council to the inferior system. The government could instead complete the long process of shifting every council to proportional voting.
It is also true that many Victorian councils use different ward sizes within the same council area – some wards may have two members, while others have three. But this would be easy to fix by requiring that wards elect the same number of councillors. This is the rule in New South Wales: councils have wards electing councillors from two to six, but each council has to use the same ward size for every ward.
They have also argued that this would be an improvement because it would ensure consistency in voting systems with federal and state elections, which use single-member electorates for the lower house. Yet both federal and state elections also use proportional voting systems for the upper house, so it is doubtful how much consistency would be achieved.
Consistency would be nice to have, but I don’t think it should be achieved by going for the lowest common denominator. I’d rather have a better electoral system for some elections than a worse system everywhere.
This proposal has largely come out of the blue. It has happened at the same time as Queensland Labor is making baby steps towards proportional representation in local council elections and is in direct opposition to the government’s promise to “support diverse representation” during the 2018 election campaign.
If you’d like to give them your thoughts, you can email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org by 31 July 2019.
If you’d like to read more, I recommend this article by Devon Rowcliffe in Independent Australia.